I learnt many years ago that there’s no point in imposing my idea of help on people from another culture. This TED talk explains why far more effectively than any of my personal examples. It’s why I choose to find local organisations like Help Colombia rather than doing something on my own. Sandra, who has spent so much time in Australia, may not be a much better judge of when and how to help than I am.
Last year, I realised how hard the lockdowns must be on so many Colombians who live hand to mouth. Most endured the lockdowns for a month or more before deciding that they were working in food distribution and were therefore entitled to continue working. So we began to see the return of fruit sellers pushing carts down our street.
One particularly rainy day, an old man caught my attention for his persistence in trying to sell his limes despite the unwillingness of our neighbours to venture into the weather. He sat outside our building, soaked, for about 20 minutes shouting ‘libodes’ in his usual nasal style. How badly must he need the money to be outside in this?
I began to buy limes only from him, going without until he came past at the same time each week. One day Sandra was with me and asked him why he carried the sack rather than use a cart like other vendors. He said that he caught the bus to a different neighbourhood each day and couldn’t take a cart on the bus.
We thought about this for a while before asking him if an upright shopping trolley would help. It was then we learnt that the sack was 40kg at the beginning of the day and a grandma shopping trolley just wouldn’t take the weight. We did some research and found a fold-able trolley at the local home-ware store that could support 70kg. Since it was Sandra’s idea, and therefore locally endorsed, I felt happy presenting the option to him and he jumped at the offer.
His smile was huge when we gave it to him, along with some elastic straps, and watched him run a few tests. I spent the rest of the week wondering whether it would work. Would it be too awkward to get onto the bus? Would the sack swing from side to side and jam in the wheels? Would the poor balance mean that he hurt his back pushing / pulling it around?
The next week he turned up without the trolley, but for none of the reasons I had considered. His story was that he had proudly showed it to his neighbour, who told him that such a trolley needed to be cared for and offered to oil it for him. The neighbour then took the trolley apart and left his son to put it back together, which he did poorly and a screw broke as he was wheeling it around afterwards. They were now trying to find an original replacement screw.
Why would you do maintenance on a brand-new piece of equipment? We decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and put aside our disappointment, but when he missed the next week, we began to wonder. By the time he’d missed 3 weeks, we were worried. Was he sick with something serious? When I told my friends from the libraries, they shrugged and said ‘Welcome to Colombia.’ It’s true that Colombians, Antioquians in particular, are known for being opportunists and businessmen, but in the three weeks he’d skipped our wealthy neighbourhood, he’d have lost as much in sales as he might have gained by selling the trolley. It just didn’t make sense.
But we didn’t want to judge him. He hadn’t asked for help. And if he needed the money more than the trolley, we were glad to have helped that little bit, though we were sad that he might be too ashamed to come near us again.
Then about a month after we’d last seen him, we heard his familiar voice yelling ‘libodes.’ When I approached him, another neighbour was asking about the missing trolley. His son had it, selling in another neighbourhood, apparently. It was difficult to believe that his son would take the trolley and leave his elderly father to carry a 40kg sack, but it wasn’t my business any more.
Then this week, he turned up with the trolley – in impeccable condition. When I went out to buy our limes, he gushed about how great it was, how God would bless us, and would I please pass on his thanks to Sandra. He had tears in his eyes. I have to admit that I’m still confused by the whole episode, but I’m glad that we made a difference.